OPINION: Sustainable growth?

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David Mayhew is a Kelvin Peninsula resident who lives within Queenstown Airport’s proposed new noise boundaries

Opinion: The airport and the council are back in the news: Airport action plan designed to deflect (Otago Daily Times, Tuesday). The Queenstown Airport Corporation (QAC) has sent its draft Statement of Intent (SOI) to Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) for comment. The council will start that process at its meeting today and the draft SOI has been published as part of the agenda papers.

The SOI is a corporate document, but to cut to the chase: the key issue for today is what does it say about projected growth of aircraft movements/passenger numbers, the issue which caused a furore last year?

Before we get into the SOI itself, it is useful to see what is happening on the ground: QAC’s half-year results show that between July 1 and December 31, 2018, total passenger numbers were 1,185,746, a hefty nine per cent increase on the previous year’s comparable period.

To be fair, these increases would have been in the pipeline before October when QAC received the overwhelming rejection of its plans to expand noise boundaries to allow a doubling of commercial flights, lifting permitted annual passenger numbers to 5.1 million.

We can, however, expect more of the same this year: the latest airport statistics record January ’19 passenger traffic up 10 per cent on January ’18; and, by way of example, Qantas has announced increased flights between Melbourne and Queenstown for the 2019 ski season to meet the demands of Melburnians, but reducing services to Christchurch to enable this to happen.

So, has the community’s response to the QAC consultation over its plans had any impact on its thinking as reflected in the draft SOI? Have its strategic priorities changed from those in last year’s SOI?

Certainly, the tone has changed. The trumpeting of growth in last year’s document has gone, as has the strategic objective of delivering passenger growth.

There is also a welcomed scaling back of the regional gateway from being for “the lower South Island” to the more modest “Southern Lakes region“; and an expression of willingness to work with Invercargill and Dunedin airports.

But the issue of growth has not gone away:

Queenstown and Wanaka airports are part of a national network of critical infrastructure assets which connect residents and visitors to the Southern Lakes region. QAC is responsible for managing these strategic assets … to ensure they are financially viable and sustainable … and contribute to the region’s economic development and the wellbeing of its communities. To achieve this, we must continue to plan long-term for sustainable growth and appropriately invest in infrastructure ahead of the curve to maintain the highest levels of safety, efficiency and customer service.

So the key phrase is sustainable growth. What that means is not spelt out in the draft SOI, but the consequences of not allowing growth are darkly outlined:

Over time, capacity will be constrained at Queenstown Airport if the noise boundaries are not expanded, with the expected effects being more limited flight choices and other changes in commercial behaviour.

So, should we now look to the council to define sustainable growth?

The council as 75 per cent shareholder of QAC, a council-controlled trading organisation, has the opportunity to comment on the draft and, ultimately, to require modifications to the final version.

Indeed, before receiving the draft, the council provided some guidance to the QAC board on what it wanted reflected in the SOI (also published with the agenda papers).

Unsurprisingly, this only dealt in generalities, all of which are reasonably encouraging of the airport’s ongoing approach.

The council’s letter does not deal directly with the issue of growth. Rather, it says the council does “recognisethe concerns raised by some residents in both Queenstownand Wanaka about the impact of changes“, but it goes on to say, “The council remains supportive of ensuring that the airport develops sustainably in the future …

That word, sustainable, again.

The challenge for the mayor and councillors as they embark on consideration of the draft SOI is to give some meaning to the concept of sustainable growth. It is a value-laden term: which values apply – business, community, environmental – and in what order of priority? By what measure do we judge whether the growth is sustainable?

Unless sustainable growth can be adequately defined in this context, we will be no further forward in the debate about the airport’s plans for both Queenstown and Wanaka.